As an American citizen, I’m used to signing my life away on the dotted line. It’s an unavoidable hurdle required before anything truly fun. Imagine my surprise when, after nine months of crisscrossing Europe, I realized I had signed less than three liability releases, and all of them within the United Kingdom.
My guide for the Camino del Rey in Malaga, known as “the most dangerous walkway in the world,” led me to the trailhead with nothing more than a smile. I signed nothing official in order to rent my Barcelona apartment with locals for 4 months — I simply paid the most responsible flatmate each month, who then took care of the rent. Even in Germany, famous for its national love of rules and organization, I clambered into the ersatz labyrinth of Zur Wilden Renate with nothing more than a word of caution to guide me. The experience within was reminiscent of the Tactile Dome in San Francisco’s Exploratorium, for which I vividly remember being required to sign a second waiver in order to enter.
I know there remain many, many places on the Continent where I would be required to sign things, and given that I was a solo Couchsurfer looking to avoid expensive tours, my experience was not universal. Yet the fact remains that the US is far more concerned with liability and legal repercussions than any other free country I have heard of (perhaps Singapore, with its $200 fine for spitting in public, can compare).
We live in a society of litigators, where you can sue anybody out of house and home for the smallest of reasons, if you pay the right lawyer. We’ve all heard the stories about burglars suing homeowners after tripping over their couch, or the woman who successfully sued McDonalds after spilling scalding coffee on herself, etc. etc. You have her to thank for the seemingly redundant “Caution — hot beverage!” warning plastered over your morning cappuccino. No matter how frivolous the suit may seem, if the jury rules in the plaintiff’s favor, money must change hands.
This leads to a society where everyone is so worried about protecting their asses that they ‘liabilitize’ everything that could possibly be ruled as their responsibility, no matter how tenuously. For example, my university hosts a massive music festival once every year with famous artists and vendors. The event is incredibly popular, and serves as possibly our strongest example of school spirit, given our lack of a football team. Since this is an American college, all the students also take this day to drink large amounts of alcohol, which led to several hospitalizations last year. The administration is responding by seriously threatening to shut down the entire festival, despite it being a proud school tradition for over two decades.
What kind of legality is this where the hosts of an event are responsible for the personal decisions of the attendees? Drinking yourself unconscious is a decision only you can make — putting the onus on another is nothing more than wishful, retroactive thinking made once things turn out poorly. It’s the same ludicrous argument that fasting protestors make — their decision to not eat food is contingent on some corporation agreeing to stop building a dam or whatever. But your decision to starve yourself is exactly that — your own decision. Legally, no entity is required to submit to your demands simply because you put yourself in danger, no matter how loudly you claim it’s their fault. Why doesn’t that principle hold over to nominal, everyday risks?
America wants you to stay home all day and watch television, because there’s little chance of you finding legal ground to blame that slothful personal decision on someone else. Meanwhile, the entire world waits outside your doorstep, intrinsically full of risk, uncertainty, and danger. That’s not a bad thing, despite what your insurance agent may tell you.
The things that make life worth living all have some risk involved, whether it’s quitting your job to pursue your passion, taking the road less traveled, or going in for the kiss. These things are exciting precisely because there’s an element of uncertainty and danger involved. They get your heart pumping, sharpen your senses, and shape what kind of person you become. As a traveler, surely you’ve learned that everything worthwhile happens outside of your comfort zone, and if there’s one word that lives squarely outside of comfort, it’s risk. Isn’t it when you feel the thrill of fear shoot up your spine that you feel most alive?
I experienced firsthand how much fun a lack of regulations can bring in Spain. I found an encierro (bull run) through online research and trained out into the suburbs of Madrid in hot pursuit the very next morning. I walked up to the stadium, bought a ticket with cash (no waiver required), and entered the arena to find dozens of local youths running circles around a large angry bovine, to the raucous cheers of hundreds of spectators. It took me several minutes to realize none of this was staged — somebody had brought the bull, but the rest of the spectacle was paying attendees entering the ring of their own volition and trying their luck.
Needless to say it didn’t take me long to do the same, and it remains one of the most rewarding experiences from my time abroad. Partly because it was something that never could have happened in the States, where a bull run would likely feature dozens of security guards stationed around the stage to keep people from interfering with the ‘trained professionals.’
Chill out, America — you’re not paying for my health insurance anyway, so what do you care which dangers I place myself in?